Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens!

Yesterday I suggested that Dickens, given his dominance over the festive period, is as much Father Christmas as the old man dressed up in a Santa suit at the local shopping centre. The ghost of his Christmas Carol past and present certainly haunt our televisions if nothing else over the Christmas period each year as pointed out by this post which considers Dickens and Christmas – it’s not just in A Christmas Carol you know, and of course the Radio Times. I’m even writing this in front of the Christmas Eve showing of Muppet’s Christmas Carol – which even stars Shakespeare (albeit only for a few seconds)! I’m telling you, there’s no escape. Things do, after all, have to be done the American, I mean the British, way.

Muppet-fied Shakespeare.

But I wonder if another man might just be able to give Dickens a run for his money, and no I don’t mean Aled Jones of The Snowman fame (I know I know he wasn’t the singer in the movie but he certainly walked the single into the charts), nor do I mean Dr Who, who has become for many a time-travelling Christmas staple.

I’m thinking of CS Lewis. It strikes me that for many his Chronicles of Narnia are a Christmas series. Not simply one given by grandparents stumped for gift ideas and offloaded to kids on Christmas day, but these books make reference to Christmas throughout. And not just the first one in which Father Christmas himself stars (much to Tolkien’s annoyance).

The most direct reference to Christmas and the nativity comes in The Last Battle which is, you’ve guessed it, the last in the series. The story features a stable with something significant inside. The nativity scene is captured in Lucy’s remark:

“‘Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world, too, a Stable once held something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.'”

While this may just sound like rehashed Bible passages, a complaint of many readers of the series, it also captures a great deal of Christmas sentiment (and makes me think of a T.A.R.D.I.S too – it’s the bigger on the inside bit..). Most nativities for instance star a tea-towel clad collection of children stumbling over the Christmas story, Lucy is a child too so it seems significant that she mentions the story – as though a distant memory of a nativity performance has been triggered in her head. A memory which triggers for us distant recollections of singing “Little Donkey” or tripping over the sheet we were dressed in when we played Mary or the Christmas tree (no, just me?). The other main mention of Christmas in the series

We all have our own Christmas traditions, in my house for instance my mum always wraps the presents on Christmas eve afternoon accompanied by the Kings College Carols, and we put out sledges on Christmas eve of our very own dressed up cuddly toys.

Christmas 2013, My younger sister Grace and the shoebox sleighs.

Christmas 2013, My younger sister Grace and the shoebox sleighs.

Christmas 2014. Teddy Santa's their sleighs and Grace.

Christmas 2014. Teddy Santa’s, their sleighs, and Grace.

But in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis contemplates a world where Christmas has been absence for many years. A world where it is always winter and never Christmas.

When we first enter Narnia it is a frozen time capsule. Literally frozen by evil and even the goodness and melting power of Father Christmas has been barred. But as the children and Aslan spread goodwill throughout Narnia, the snow begins to melt and spring comes again, heralded (somewhat bizarrely – though handy for our purpose) by Father Christmas himself.

The entrance of Father Christmas into Narnia really bugged Tolkien. He disliked the mismatch of traditions which Lewis calls in Narnia – a world embedded in Christian doctrine (sorry spoiler alerts should have been given), which also features a more pagan figure of the season (though given his Father Christmas letters this seems a little hypocritical). Jesus and Santa coalesce and this has caused difficulties. But I think there’s merit in looking beyond the religion governed dimensions. Santa is more than an emblem of a pagan rooted tradition surely, he’s as cuddly as the toys my sister and I put out in our sledges each year, as the poem about St Nick makes very clear with a belly like a bowl full of jelly he’s harmless and besides he brings gifts of great joy just like the little bundle of joy in the manger.

The approach of Father Christmas to the children’s hiding place in Narnia is laden with fear – and not because he has been spying on them (though there’s something very creepy about the Christmas song which reveals Santa knows when you’ve been sleeping, and if you’ve been bad or good). The sound of the bells is uncannily like the evil witch who governs Narnia. So with fear and a great deal of trepidation Mr Beaver peeps around to check if their worst fear has been realised. Thankfully mere moments later he comes bounding back beckoning all to come and meet his red-faced friend, Mr Claus himself. The expectance of evil and arrival of good makes Father Christmas’s presence even more welcome.

This is the bit I’m talking about:

Ok, ok it’s not quite the same Christmas spirit to be found in the home of Kermit and Miss Piggy (sorry I mean the Cratchits) but it’s pretty Christmassy.

The arrival of Father Christmas means presents of course, but the presents in Narnia aren’t your classic Christmas clementine, these are certainly some unusual stocking fillers. And they’re not toys.

Meeting Santa is strongly reminiscent of the first time the children hear the name Aslan, it both excites and scares them in equal measure, a solemn happiness dawns on all the children as the feel the responsibility of their role in Narnia as well as excitement at the arrival of presents which Christmas necessarily signals. Laden with adult responsibilities they are still children at heart – not yet kings and queens of Narnia’s golden age. They are in a sense adult while remaining children at heart.

This whole coming of age business is of course crucial to many Christmas stories. Scrooge for instance needs to be led by the example of a sickly child to unlock the adult greed filled chained heart of his, childish Christmas cheer showers on the closed off soul and he emerge anew, in a similar way but in reverse, the children are flung into positions of great power having been mere evacuees in a grand house only hours before, but their experience as adults (or children with adult abilities and powers), even down to hobnobbing with Father Christmas and some talkative beavers, changes them irrevocably for the better.

He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest.… Now that the children actually stood looking at him… he was so big, so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt that deep shiver of gladness that you only get if you are being solemn and still.

Santa is a force for good, and the Christmas presence he imprints on the text is crucial to the story. Just as the Christmas image in The Last Battle is a handy pointer, and a clear image to us of just what the stable is really like. Santa similes, if nothing else, are a move by Lewis to prod us with a (candy) cane and say “for goodness sake, can’t you see, this is what it’s like”.

Santa = Christmas, good and festive fun, but also an emblem of Childhood which though the fiction allows to be real he brings presents which propel the children into premature adulthood as they battle evil powered by weaponry from the spirit of their childish Christmases past.

The Stable = a shard of hope in an evil imbued world, it’s T.A.R.D.I.S-like and while the contents might be surprising and scary it’s also exciting.

Christmas in Narnia is a force of good and whether it makes its presence known in the form of Father Christmas or a fleeting remark about a Bethlehem born baby boy, it’s good news.

When departing, Father Christmas calls out, “A Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” And so, Lewis unites pagan and religious images in his image of Christmas goodwill.

Perhaps it is Christmas goodwill, embracing the true spirit of Christmas (whatever that is) which lies at the heart of many Christmas tales and while perhaps we’re not ready yet for Lewis and his Narnia offering to topple Dickens from his place as Father Christmas (well deserved of course), perhaps the images he offers aren’t that different to those we find in A Christmas Carol the spirits of time are replaced by an image of a figure from another time, another world even, santa claus. He is their very own ghost of Christmas past, a reminder of happier times and one who can change not only their future, but the future of the world. They don’t even need Rudolph to guide them this time!

While Narnia isn’t only about Christmas, it’s a good one to read at this time of year, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas” – what better than a book for children, featuring the father of Christmas himself. So when you’ve read Agatha Christie’s offering to death, or you’re bored stiff of Spot’s First Christmas, why not read, or revisit, Narnia – a world where though it might seem frozen in evil thanks to Father Christmas the white witch is forced to let (it) go, as the spirit of Christmas comes dashing through the snow, on a sleigh laden with good will.

Christmas classics the series may not be, but this is not only a world where it is never Christmas but one where all will honour Christmas in their hearts that is to say the goodness of their childhood (Christmas past) all that they learn in Narnia (Christmas present) which they can bring to their future selves back in this world (Christmas future). These ghostly presences for Scrooge, like Santa for the children bring valuable presents that will change all forever. Ok it’s a rough Dickens based analogy, but the journeys through time and space which the children of Narnia go through, albeit not on Christmas eve and without spirits with time travelling abilities. But the wardrobe and other portals are almost like Police Call boxes, as they offer an alternative world which is set to change their pasts, presents, and futures.

Narnia like A Christmas Carol are all, after all, much more than simply tales about Christmas they encourage us to say with Scrooge:

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Dickens, Santa Claus, and the baby in a manger are all spirits of Christmases past, present, and future, but Narnia, by intricately combining many elements, slots itself neatly into the Christmas tradition.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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4 Responses to Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens!

  1. Pingback: Where’s Shakespeare: The Christmas Edition | Shakin' Spearians

  2. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | The Shakespeare Standard

  3. Pingback: Where’s Shakespeare: The Christmas Edition | The Shakespeare Standard

  4. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | The Shakespeare Standard

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